“There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity,” waxes Ralph Fiennes in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson's pastry-lite eulogy for a golden pre-war age of chivalrous romanticism, classy refinement, and gaudy luxury.
Though now a desolate and scarcely frequented relic of a bygone era, the Grand Budapest was once the most lavishly appointed palace of 1930s Zubrowka – a fictional European nation on the brink of an unnamed war – where it was run by the fey and fastidious concierge Monsieur Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and his faithful lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori). We hear Gustave and Zero's story as recounted by a much older Zero (F. Murray Abraham) to a curious author (Jude Law), whose subsequent writings of the interview are being read decades later by an anonymous student...
… But back to the story within the story within the story:
Thus ensues the madness. Anderson orchestrates this stolen art caper with comic hijinks that run the gamut from the wittily madcap to the wickedly macabre; From prison-break tools smuggled in gourmet desserts, to morbid assassinations that leave one unfortunate victim with digits numbering six – In either case, fingers get “licked”.
But as with most of the American auteur's conspicuously peculiar comedies, there's something more substantially emotional lingering beneath its delectably silly surface. Anderson simply replaces tears with laughter here as a way of mourning the death of a civilization that was too glorious to last and has since dissipated into myth. Indeed, as Anderson and co-scribe Hugo Guiness' triple-layered framing device (the story-within-a-story-within-a-story) suggests, the only thing that keeps the spirit of that era alive is the passing down of legend and lore.
There's even been some critical consideration that The Grand Budapest Hotel could be Anderson's best film yet. That may be up for debate, but I'd argue that it is his most “Anderson-y” film yet. All of his trademark anachronisms reach a level of saturation here that his detractors might find overbearing, but there can be no doubt that his distinctive form is evidence of a practiced visual storyteller who knows exactly what he's doing.
The precision of his square-framed compositions and 90° pans direct the rhythm of each scene, and capture the meticulous sets in all their diorama-like detail. And what sumptuous sets they are too! Following up his gritty Oscar-nominated work on 12 Years a Slave, production designer Adam Stockhausen gets to really showcase his artistic and tonal versatility by creating a candy-coloured world in miniature, populated by tiny people, as though we're looking at a scale model in some museum for extinct cultures. It all looks good enough to eat, not unlike the intricately-iced pastries that figure so cheekily into the plot. Here's hoping the designers branch of the Academy can remember him and set decorator Anna Pinnock nine months from now.
Prickly insomuch as that Anderson can't help but slightly scoff at the world he so poignantly memorializes in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Even Gustave has to stop himself mid-sentence and amend the remark of his that opened this article: “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that's what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant... oh, fuck it.”
***1/2 out of ****